The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    NYTBR: Wok On and podcast!

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 8, 2008

    The New York Times Book Review runs its review of my book this Sunday by Jan and Michael Stern. It’s already online now and it actually closed 10 days ago, on a Wednesday. (The Book Review, like the Magazine, has a incredible close-to-distribution lag, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me but may involve giving the industry a heads-up as to what is coming.  Book publishers and retailers always get the review like a week in advance).

    I actually had a sense that the review might be good news when I got a e-mail from the section’s Web producer inviting me to join in the podcast with the subject line “book review podcast.”

    My first thought was, “Wait, our book review?” I had to look at the domain name of his email to make sure.

    I wrote back “Hopefully the fact you are interviewing me means that the book didn’t get panned. Either that or you guys have a soft spot for podcasting people who are in the same building.”

    When I went up, it was incredibly sweet. As people walked by, they congratulated me.

    Note the headline: Wok On. Add list of Chinese-food related puns used for my book.

    March 9, 2008

    Wok On


    THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.

    By Jennifer 8. Lee.
    307 pp. Twelve. $24.99.

    Chinese restaurants are more American than apple pie, says Jennifer 8. Lee in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.” There are twice as many of these restaurants as there are McDonald’s franchises, and the food they serve is every bit as predictable. “What Chinese restaurant menu doesn’t offer beef with broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork lo mein, fried wontons, egg rolls and egg drop soup?” asks the author, an “American-born Chinese” who cheerfully admits to an obsession with Chinese restaurants.

    Intrigued by the Powerball drawing of March 30, 2005, which produced an inordinate quantity of winning lottery tickets because the lucky numbers had turned up in fortune cookies all around the country, Lee rides her obsession on a three-year, 42-state, 23-country journey during which she discovers that fortune cookies, like so much about America’s Chinese restaurants, aren’t really Chinese. They originated in 19th-century Japan and were sold in Japanese confectionery shops in San Francisco until World War II, when Japanese-Americans were interned, at which point Chinese entrepreneurs took over the business. Lee tracks down Donald Lau, who spent a decade writing fortunes for the biggest cookie manufacturer until he suffered writer’s block and had to retire in 1995.

    Lee is a city-beat reporter for The New York Times. Her inclination as a journalist is to trace a story all the way to its genesis, but not without taking some fascinating detours. On the way to finding the origin of fortune cookies, she pinpoints the beginning of door-to-door delivery in New York and its attendant scourge of free menus. And she gives us the possible origin of chop suey (a joke played by a Chinese chef in San Francisco whose boss wanted him to concoct something that “would pass as Chinese.”) Lee travels to Hunan to see if the actual General Tso had anything to do with the chicken dish that bears his name, only to discover it most likely began as General Ching’s chicken, named after General Tso’s mentor. She also reveals that the white cardboard Fold-Pak cartons for takeout food, originally used to hold shucked oysters, are unknown in China, where Chinese takeout food is virtually nonexistent. But there’s a demand for them elsewhere — because European and African television viewers want the product they see on “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”

    Lee presents an intriguing idea in a chapter called “Open-Source Chinese Restaurants,” contending that “if McDonald’s is the Windows of the dining world (where one company controls the standards), then Chinese restaurants are akin to the Linux operating system, where a decentralized network of programmers contributes to the underlying source code.” She contrasts the decade of “failed experimentation” before the success of Chicken McNuggets to the breathtaking speed with which chop suey, fortune cookies and General Tso’s chicken took hold in Chinese restaurants everywhere thanks to a “self-organizing” system in which good ideas spread like urban legends.

    It’s fun to read about the Jewish passion for “safe treyf” (Yiddish for nonkosher food) and to accompany Lee on an exhaustive hunt for “The Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World” outside China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But amusing as such diversions are, Lee’s book is more serious than its jolly subtitle suggests, exposing some very ugly sides of the business. She journeys to the province of Fujian, which is “the single largest exporter of Chinese restaurant workers in the world today,” and documents the ordeal of a teenager named Michael from the fishing village of Houyu, which has sent more than three-quarters of its population to the United States and where a school teaches restaurant English to the young. Michael spends a harrowing two years trying to get to America, winding up on the notorious Golden Venture, the ship that ran aground off Rockaway Beach in 1993 and raised public awareness of human smuggling. She writes about the vulnerability of Chinese deliverymen, for whom homicide is a leading cause of on-the-job death. And she tells the tragic story of an immigrant couple who try to make a go of a small Chinese restaurant in northern Georgia but are left broke and broken by the experience.

    Inevitably, Lee’s investigative trail leads back to the mass arrival of Chinese immigrants in California during the Gold Rush, when they became known as Celestials because they seemed so otherworldly. Their eating habits were especially distressing — using chopsticks instead of forks, they consumed strange sea creatures and animals considered vermin, not game. “The embers of culinary xenophobia smoldered,” Lee writes, citing a pamphlet published by the labor leader Samuel Gompers titled “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat Versus Rice, American Manhood Versus Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?” The Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting immigration and preventing Chinese from becoming citizens, effectively barred an entire ethnic group from jobs in agriculture, mining and manufacturing. The result? The Chinese opened laundries and restaurants. “Cleaning and cooking were both women’s work,” Lee explains. “They were not threatening to white laborers.”

    Nor did the food in the restaurants the Chinese opened threaten American taste. It was, and mostly remains, “streamlined, palatable and digestible” — American food that looks foreign, with the Chinese who cook and serve it, according to Lee, “just the middlemen.”
    Jane and Michael Stern are the authors of “Roadfood.”

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